Rattle and the Londoners played their hearts out – A towering Beethoven Ninth at Elbphilharmonie

LSO / Sir Simon Rattle

On their second evening at Elbphilharmonie, the London Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle ventured into the wondrous realm of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1822-24). 

Teaming up with their very own London Symphony Chorus and soprano Iwona Sobotka, mezzo-soprano Anne Stéphany, tenor Robert Murray and bass Florian Boesch, the orchestra and Rattle were on their first joint expedition into the Beethoven epic. Following two performances at the Barbican last week, the Ninth Symphony is also featured on their Middle-European tour this week.   

Due to the lasting success of Beethoven’s final symphony, it is easy to forget, what an outrageously radical piece it really is. It is not only the first symphony to include a text, sung by a full chorus and a quartet of soloists, but also in terms of dramaturgy, the symphony is very much next level compared to anything written before. 

There is an instrumental narrative running through the whole symphony. The first three movements yearn for fulfillment, to no avail. Only in the finale, as embodied by Beethoven’s setting of the Schiller Ode, the music reaches resolution and completion. 

In the opening movement, first musical ideas begin to materialize from an ambient hue of the tremolo strings. There is deep unrest in the music from the very first bars on. The material screams for resolution, yet no solace is to be found. In the course of the movement Beethoven keeps painting himself into a corner, until there is no escape, and the music is brought to a brutal close. 

An obsessive scherzo ensues. Again, the music is searching a way out, but ends up chasing its own tail, again and again. Eventually, Beethoven dispenses with the whole thing by abruptly jumping out of his own circle. 

The slow movement, adagio molto e cantabile, despite all of its touching beauty, finds no solution either. Constructed with impeccable imagination and craft, the music is tuned into a spellbinding hall of mirrors, an enchantment leading nowhere.    

Thus, it is now all up to the finale. Following the earthquake opening, the previous movements are each revisited, and quickly rejected. Then, out of nowhere a new idea begins to take shape. The tide is turned, and a hitherto undiscovered sonic realm opens. 

Voices enter, lead by the bass, to sound out Schiller’s iconic verses, leading to the first choral climax. Yet, Beethoven wouldn’t be Beethoven without his jokes. So, from those exalted heights we plunge deep down into the turf, with grunting bassoons and bass drum beats. These, in turn, evolve into a spirited march for the solo tenor and chorus.   

A fugal interlude ensues, with its ever mounting tension. Before unleashing the chorus, Beethoven bewilders us with a tilted horn passage, lasting one and a half pages. When the voices finally erupt, the effect is earthmoving. 

There is a shift of mood, with more introspective and existential andante maestoso passage, paving the way for the contrapuntal feast of allegro energico e sempre ben marcato for chorus. After a jubilant final passage for the four soli, the full orchestra and chorus close the symphony with a roaringly joyous coda.   

For more than two decades, Rattle has been among the diehard advocates of the Johanthan Del Mar Beethoven editions. At Elbphilharmonie, those Bärenreiter parts were again on the music stands, though not on the podium, as Rattle conducted the piece from memory. 

LSO / Sir Simon Rattle

The London Symphony Chorus sang also off-book, in keen eye contact with the Elbphilharmonie audience. The sheer joyous intensity of the choir, not to mention their immaculate counterpoint and elaborate articulation, made a tremendous effect upon the listener. 

Not in every performance does one get to hear such an imaginative quartet of soloists as on Wednesday. As always, Florian Boesch gave truly one-of-a-kind reading of the bass part, with impeccable insight and wit. Iwona Sobotka’s soprano lines soared with translucent beauty. With Robert Murray’s jubilant tenor and Anna Stéphany’s radiant mezzo, the vocal quartet was perfected, to a stunning effect. 

In his usual manner with the Ninth, Rattle had doubled the winds, both in order to gain more ideal balance with the strings and to help the players survive Beethoven’s hardcore wind writing, in the first two movements in particular.  

There was a ravishing combination of gorgeous sonic mass and period-practice dexterity in the LSO performance, perfectly suited for this larger-than-life symphony. With Rattle, nothing was played safe, and the listeners, as well as, I would imagine, the performers, were on the edge of their seat for the whole evening.  

To paraphrase Nikolaus Harnoncourt, real beauty is indeed at the edge of catastrophe. In Beethoven, the element of danger is everything. With this soaringly exuberant performance, Rattle and the Londoners, alongside their brilliant soloists, grasped the very essence of Beethoven’s score, to an invigorating effect. 

LSO / Sir Simon Rattle

In addition to the towering musical quality of the performance, hearing these outstanding UK ensembles play their hearts out during these brooding post-Brexit times was something so very special. Evenings like this stay ever engraved in memory.     

As with previous night’s programme, Rattle had again paired Beethoven with the music of Alban Berg. On the first half, Symphonic Pieces from the Opera ”Lulu”, or simply Lulu-Suite, (1934) was heard. Incidentally, it is the very same pairing conducted by Rattle’s Berlin successor, Kirill Petrenko, at his inaugural concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker last August.

Berg’s Symphonic Pieces comprise indeed a quasi-symphonic whole. At the core of the five-movement suite is Lulu’s Song, a self-portrait of the title character. The song is framed by two interludes. The first one is a musical palindrome, originally written for a film interlude, hence titled Filmusik in Berg’s autograph score. The second interlude is an ingenious set of dance variations from the unfinished third act of the opera. 

The extended outer movements, opening Rondo and concluding Adagio, are the most symphonic among the five pieces, each based on an eloquently constructed musical arc. 

Scored for a large orchestra, including prominent parts for saxophone and vibraphone, Berg’s score is a dazzling synthesis of dodecaphony and tonal elements, tight formal logic and cabaret sonorities. Together with the Violin Concerto heard on the previous evening, Lulu Suite is an awe-inspiring summa of Berg’s late style; spellbinding textures with pervasive, shatteringly dark-hued undercurrent.  

Programme-wise, the ruthless world of Lulu, embedded with deceit, abuse, emptiness, and death, leads into that very darkness and despair, which the closing Beethoven Ninth so luminously dispelled.      

At Elbphilharmonie, Berg’s orchestral fabric was brought to life with gorgeously lush sonorities and admirable transparency by the LSO and Rattle. With splendid reactivity, the orchestra conveyed even the slightest dramatic nuance, to a riveting effect. 

Lulu’s Song was delivered with splendid intensity and character by Sobotka, whose articulation was always spot on. In the Adagio, she portrayed Countess Gescwitz’s moving valediction with fragile beauty.    


London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor


London Symphony Chorus

Simon Halsey, chorus master


Iwona Sobotka, soprano

Anna Stéphany, mezzo-soprano

Robert Murray, tenor

Florian Boesch, bass


Alban Berg: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera ”Lulu” (1934)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24)


Konzertdirektion DR. Rudolf Goette GmbH

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

Wednesday 19 February 2020, 8 pm

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Sebastian Madej

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